Arsenic in the Arctic

AuroraIt is perhaps surprising that one of the best known U.S. Arctic explorers first felt the Call of the North in land-locked Cincinnati, Ohio. Charles Francis Hall (1821–71) was born in Vermont, and apprenticed to a blacksmith in Rochester, New York. He then ‘drifted west’ with a wife, Mercy Anne (after his death an appeal was set up in Cincinnati for his widow and two children), becoming a seal-engraver and plate-maker in the city in which, a generation earlier, Mrs Trollope had attempted, unsuccessfully, to revive the family fortunes.

Hall next branched out into newspapers: the Cincinnati Occasional (which lasted from 5 August 1858 to 17 December the same year) and (allegedly) the Daily Press (1858-62), though this was in fact published by the brothers Henry and Samuel Reed – perhaps Hall typeset and printed it?

This 1870 image of Hall (third from left) is the only known photograph. It does resemble engravings of him which appear in earlier books.

This 1870 image of Hall (third from left) is the only known photograph. It does resemble engravings of him which appear in earlier books.

In the mean time, he had become fascinated by book and newspaper accounts of Arctic exploration, and especially the missing Franklin expedition. Deciding that it was his destiny to discover the fate of Franklin and his crew, and undeterred by his by lack of money or of any knowledge or experience of sailing, in 1860 he went back east, and met with Henry Grinnell.

Henry Grinnell, friend of Lady Franklin and financier of Arctic expeditions.

Henry Grinnell, friend of Lady Franklin and financier of Arctic expeditions.

Grinnell, self-made shipping entrepreneur, founder of the American Geographical and Statistical Society and already the financier of three U.S. expeditions in search of Franklin, introduced Hall to Connecticut whaling firms, one of whom offered him free passage on the George Henry, captain Sidney O. Budington, to Frobisher Strait, where he was put ashore with a sledge. His plan was to hire Inuit guides, travel through the strait and make his way to King William Island, where he hoped some of Franklin’s crew might still be alive. (He was aware that McClintock’s 1859 expedition had already found some bodies and other relics, but he believed it possible that some crew members might have survived with help from the Inuit.)

Hall’s first important discovery was that Frobisher’s Strait was not a strait but a bay, with no access to King William Island. However, extraordinarily, he did find clear indications of Sir Martin Frobisher’s third Arctic voyage (1578), in the remains of mine workings: Frobisher had been looking (vainly) for gold.

This engraving of Hall with Ebierbing and Tookoolito appears in Vol. 1 of Life with the Esquimaux.

This engraving of Hall with Ebierbing and Tookolito appears in Vol. 1 of Life with the Esquimaux.

During the two years in which he lived in the Arctic, Hall was assisted by an Inuit couple, Ebierbing, a guide and hunter, and his wife Tookolito, who spoke English. Tookolito was the sister of Eenoolooapik: she and her husband were taken to Britain by a whaler captain in the 1850s, and appear, like ‘Eenoo’, to have become minor celebrities, even having tea with royalty.

Eenoolooapik, from the frontispiece of M’Donald’s 1841 book. (M’Donald later worked as an assistant surgeon on H.M.S. Terror in Franklin’s last expedition: his eventual fate is not known.)

Hall can also claim to be the first explorer to have investigated the daily lives of the Inuit, and copied their survival strategies, rather than relying on imported supplies. This confirmed him in the belief that there might be Franklin survivors somewhere in the wilderness. He persuaded Ebierbing and Tookolito (with their young son, Tukerliktu (‘Butterfly’)) to return to the U.S. with him, and they acted as visual aids on his lecture tours (designed to raise money for a new expedition).

Advertisement for Hall's lecture.

Advertisements for Hall’s lecture.

poster 2

They were also put on show by the legendary P.T. Barnum, as ‘Esquimaux Indians … from the arctic regions … the first and only inhabitants of these frozen regions’ ever brought to the United States.

Barnum's advertisement for the 'Esquimaux Indians'.

Barnum’s advertisement for the ‘Esquimaux Indians’.

Hall also published an account of his life among the Esquimaux (in 1864 in Britain, 1865 in the U.S.), the timing possibly indicating greater interest in the Arctic in Europe.

Tragically, Tukerliktu died of pneumonia while on tour, to the enormous distress of his mother. However, the pair agreed to accompany Hall on his next expedition, which lasted for nearly five years: Grinnell again supported him, and Budrington was his captain, this time in the Monticello. This trip was not an unmitigated success: Hall tried without success to recruit other Inuit to make up a party to reach King William Island. He then hired some whalemen, but shot one of them dead while trying to quell a mutiny. In the mean time, Tookolito gave birth to another son, ‘King William’, but the baby died soon after. And when in the spring of 1869 they finally reached King William Island, they heard rumours of live white men, but found only more skeletal remains.

Graves of Franklin's men, discovered by the first Grinnell expedition.

Graves of Franklin’s men, discovered by the first Grinnell expedition.

Undaunted, Hall now aimed for the North Pole. He managed to persuade Congress, and President Ulysses S. Grant, to fund what became known as the Polaris expedition, named for the ship, which Budington again commanded. Hall set sail in July 1871: Ebierbing and Tookolito went too, along with their adopted daughter Panik (‘Daughter’). They set a ‘farthest north’ record of 82°11’ N by September, but were driven back by ice to a bay in northern Greenland (named ‘Thank God Harbour’ by Budington) where they planned to winter. In October, Hall set off alone on a sledging expedition, and on his return, after drinking a cup of coffee, he became violently ill, developing paralysis down one side, and accusing the ship’s officers of poisoning him. After an apparent partial recovery, he died on 8 November, and was buried on shore.

The Polaris at sea.

The Polaris at sea.

It appears that the crew became equally paralysed without him. In autumn 1872, Budington tried to sail south, although the Polaris had suffered crush damage from the ice. A party of nineteen, including Inuit women and children, became separated from the ship and stranded on an ice floe, surviving only though the hunting skills of Ebierbing and Hans Hendrik, a Greenland Inuit of the crew. They were eventually rescued by a sealer off Labrador, having spent six months on the floe and drifted 1,300 miles. Budington meanwhile had grounded the Polaris in Greenland, and he and the surviving crew were rescued in the following spring.

The Polaris, from the title page of Albert Markhamn's book about the rescue.

The Polaris, from the title page of Albert Markham’s book about the rescue.

A U.S. Navy board of inquiry exonerated Budington of any wrong-doing, and concluded that Hall had died of ‘apoplexy’. However, the board transcripts reveal that there was considerable tension among the officers: Budington had been drinking heavily, and had quarrelled with Hall; the ship’s doctor and naturalist, Emil Bessels, had also fallen out with him. Both Ebierbing and Tookolito were among the witnesses who had heard Hall’s claims that he was being poisoned, but the inquiry did not take the accusations seriously.

Remarkably, in 1968, a party of investigators found Hall’s grave and performed an autopsy. Significant amounts of arsenic were found in his hair and fingernails: though this would have weakened him considerably, it could not be proved that it was the actual cause of death. Nor does it necessarily mean that he was poisoned by one of the officers: he had his own medicine kit, and if he was distrustful of Bessels, he might have been trying to cure himself with one of the numerous quack medicines of the time which contained arsenic. Since 1968, there have been many theories about Hall’s sudden death: but the case remains (as Scots law has it) ‘unproven’.

As for Ebierbing, Tookolito and little Panik, they returned to a home that Hall and the Budington family had established for them in Groton, Connecticut. Ebierbing continued to act as a guide and hunter for Arctic expeditions (including Schwatka’s search), while Tookolito worked as a sempstress. But a further tragedy struck them: Panik had never recovered fully from the six-month ordeal on the ice floe, and died at the age of nine. Tookolito declined rapidly in health, as she had done after Tukerliktu’s death, and died on 31 December 1876: she is buried in the town graveyard, near the Budington plot.

Ebierbing, a photograph appearing in Nourse's 1879 book.

Ebierbing, a photograph appearing in Nourse’s 1879 book.

Ebierbing died in the Arctic some time in 1881: there are no details of the circumstances, or of his burial.


PS: If you want even more books about Franklin and the search for the lost expedition, look here.

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1 Response to Arsenic in the Arctic

  1. Pingback: Death on the Ice | Professor Hedgehog's Journal

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